I’ve been holding my tongue and staying my pen since January, when Fiverr – the online marketplace that matches skinflint budget-conscious business owners with freelancers willing to work for as little as $5 a gig* – launched its first ad campaign, “In Doers We Trust.” But my initial distaste for the ads has not faded with time.
“Dreamers, Kindly Step Aside.”
This ad was my introduction to the series. I saw it in an underground BART station, where the greenish overhead lighting gave it an all-too-appropriate sickly pallor. It was early in the year, when the news was full of speculation about the impact of Trumpian crackdowns on DREAMers: undocumented youths who were brought to the U.S. as children. (DREAM is an acronym, or backronym, for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.) Those DREAMers are not the “dreamers” of the Fiverr ad, but the reference nevertheless struck me as tin-eared and off-putting. The odd photo, in which the subject’s head appears too big for his or her body and the facial expression is a mixture of contempt and defiance, made me queasy.
“Dreamers suck, doers rule,” is the theme of the whole Fiverr campaign. It’s a contrarian stance that might have worked if the execution weren’t so mean spirited.
“Got an Idea? Isn’t That Cute.”
Take, for example, this video spot, in which an obsessively driven “lean entrepreneur” – we’re all entrepreneurs now, don’t you know – crumples a little girl’s drawing (it’s just “an idea”!) and creates a business called “Fookit,” which is just what the world’s been waiting for. The message: Cheap Fiverr labor will make you rich. The spot is called “Get Shit Done”; the tacit sub-theme is “…even if you have to use a shitty name and logo.”
I was gratified to learn that I’m not alone in my displeasure.
Do not. pic.twitter.com/IfQ9GhQjPF— Sorry Watch (@SorryWatch) March 7, 2017
The ads appear to be addressed not to the $5-a-gig contractors but to the people who hire them in their mad scramble to the top of Mount Entrepreneur.
In an approving review, Little Black Book (“a place to celebrate global creativity in advertising”) quoted the person responsible for the campaign:
“What became clear in our research is that Fiverr users take great pride in being entrepreneurs and identify powerfully with an ideology of lean entrepreneurship,” explains Doug Cameron, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of DCX Growth Accelerator. “If you are an entrepreneur, Fiverr is indispensable in that it allows you to compete with much larger businesses. You can use Fiverr to design your logo, build your website, create a video that explains your product, translate this into dozens of languages, and so on, and do this at ten times the speed that it would take a big, bureaucratic company to do it.”
Despite the name, DCX Growth Accelerator is in fact what we used to call an ad agency. Did they use Fiverr’s $5-a-gig talent to create their campaign? They did not. The photographers they hired, the austerely single-named Platon and Sandro, are among the most celebrated and highly paid shooters in the industry.
There’s not only a video; there’s a “making-of” video.
It’s a sharp descent from “the soul of the company” and “brand anthem” to Fiverr’s “In Doers We Trust Gallery,” in which gig contractors post their photos and words of wisdom. Here are three of them: “Negative feed back to motivate me”; “I want to be a online marketer and make word [sic] better place”; “I like this pag [sic].”''
This is a reprehensible philosophy, Fiverr.
Fiverr’s message is the bleaker and frankly more honest version of what most gig-economy companies profess privately. (One of the 14 “core values” of the ride-hailing company Uber, for example, is “Always Be Hustlin’.” Yes, they drop the G.) And it’s attracted some blowback: SFist called the Fiverr ad campaign “tragic” and “dark.” The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino called it “dystopian” and “faux inspirational,” and skewered Fiverr’s fetishizing of “lean entrepreneurs”:
This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars.
More like the church of don’t.
I can’t help contrasting Fiverr’s exhausted, exhausting “doers” with the calm, confident subjects of the hugely successful “Dewar’s Profile” campaign, which ran from the early 1970s through the early 1990s. The ads, for White Label scotch, played on the Dewar’s/doers homophone and showcased people in the arts, fashion, journalism, and offbeat occupations like harpsichord builder. The Dewar’s doers read books (The Frail Ocean, My Antonía, Beyond Freedom and Dignity) and had interesting hobbies (politics, interpretive dancing, flying a stunt plane). They didn’t “eat coffee”; they sipped scotch.
Dewar’s Profile of pianist Arlene Portney, 1978.
Dewar’s made an attempt to revive the concept in 2013 with its “Live True” campaign. The new ads skimped on original copy (although one of them appropriated an abridged poem by the late Charles Bukowski), and they failed to replicate, as design critic Steven Heller put it, “the wonderful print juxtapositions … of Scotch and average successful drinking folk who come from ‘all walks of life’.” Once, an ad campaign could show us interesting people with worthwhile careers. The Fiverr ads tell us that the best we can aspire to is an endless, soul-destroying hustle in pursuit of a devalued notion of success.
* That was the fixed fee when the site launched in 2010. The ceiling was eventually lifted, and some freelancers now reportedly charge as much as $8,000 for their services. Read about one buyer’s experience with a $5 logo commissioned through Fiverr.